Mary’s Cover Song

Jason Micheli —  January 2, 2014 — Leave a comment

401px-Adoration_of_the_Shepherds-Caravaggio_(1609)For the 4th Sunday of Advent, we did something a little different. The text was Mary’s Magnificat in Luke, a song Mary takes from the Old Testament Matriarch, Hannah, and makes her own. A cover song so to speak. A sample.

With Mary as my muse, I decided to prepare 5 different beginnings to a sermon. We spun a wheel to choose a beginning at random. I preached that introduction and then tagged in to Dennis Perry who, like Mary, had to take my words and make them his own.

Obviously, I only have the introductory text for each sermon but here it is. You can listen to one of the 4 services here or download it in iTunes or, even better, download the free mobile app.

 

      1. Mary's Cover Song

Cover Song

Not knowing what to expect once she learns from Gabriel that she’s expecting, Mary travels to her cousin Elizabeth’s house.

Elizabeth is like the photo negative of Mary.

     Both women are pregnant with the promises of God and both unbelievably so. Whereas Mary is young- a virgin- Elizabeth is old enough that she and her husband’s hope for a child had long since past its expiration date.

When Mary sees Elizabeth, she bursts out in prophecy. She sings a song. We call it the Magnificat because of that first line: ‘My soul magnifies…’ Perhaps because we’ve given it a unique title, called it the Magnificat, most Christians don’t realize the song isn’t original to Mary.

It’s a cover song.

Actually it’s more like a sample. From the song Hannah sings when she learns, despite her own unlikely circumstances, that she will give birth to a son. Samuel.

Mary samples Hannah’s song and makes it her own.

In other words, Mary takes someone else’s words and, spontaneously, she uses them to proclaim.

This weekend Dennis and I thought that, rather than just preach about what Mary proclaims, we would instead actually do what Mary did. We thought we would take someone else’s words and, spontaneously, use them to proclaim the Gospel.

So, imagine I’m the Old Testament matriarch, Hannah.

Here’s how it’s going to work.

I’ve written five different beginnings to a sermon. Without Dennis’ input or knowledge.

All four halves of sermons are about Mary.

We’ll spin the wheel to find out which beginning we’ll begin with. I’ll preach that beginning of the sermon and then I’ll tag out to Dennis.

Like Mary, Dennis will have to take my words and, in the moment, use them to proclaim something that’s cause for rejoicing.

Sermon #1: 

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”  

– Matthew 1

Growing up, I always felt this sneaking suspicion that Christmas for me and my family wasn’t what Christmas was for other families. I suspected as much because I knew that my family wasn’t like other families. Norman Rockwell didn’t paint many quaint images of a children sitting around a tree wondering if their Dad would actually come home that night.

Many of us want to experience a perfect Christmas every year, but perfect experiences require perfect people and I don’t know many of those.

And I doubt you know many either.

Nonetheless, Christmas is a time when many of us feel the need to pretend.

And those without the wherewithal to pretend simply conclude that they don’t belong in this story celebrated by the people better than themselves.

It’s odd that so many of us would think this time of year demands either perfection or pretense from us. It’s odd because the Gospel story itself makes absolutely no pretense about how imperfect was the family into which Jesus is born.

It’s all right there in the lengthy genealogy of Jesus which Matthew provides at the beginning of the Gospels. The genealogy is, in fact, the beginning of Matthew’s Christmas story.

The matter-of-fact list of names strikes the average reader as needless, boring prologue to the Gospel story proper. Readers anxious to get on with the meat of the story miss what Matthew might want us to know by telling us Jesus’ lineage in groups of fourteen.

Fourteen, in the Old Testament, is a perfect number- a number which represents completion. Readers in a hurry during the Christmas season risk failing to notice how in all of Matthew’s begats there are some names which shouldn’t be there if a traditional, legitimate- not to mention respectable- genealogy is what Matthew has in mind.

If you know your bible then you know Jesus’ family tree resembles what would happen if Jerry Springer wrote the season finale for House of Cards.

Jesus’ family has liars and cheats in it, adulterers and murderers, prostitutes and illegal immigrants. The branches of Jesus’ family tree betray secrets like incest and political intrigue and even a woman who got pregnant out of wedlock.

So what is Matthew getting at by beginning things with this imperfect family tree?

You can’t answer that question in isolation from what immediately precedes and proceeds the genealogy.

Before this family tree, before the New Testament begins, the Old Testament had ended and God had been silent for over 400 years.

What God had begun in the Garden. all the promises God had made to his People, were over. It seemed. There was nothing now but the darkness and chaos of exile.

And then Matthew begins the New Testament with a list of begats. And that list of begets begins with the word ‘genesis’ which we translate as ‘in the beginning.’

Sound familiar? It’s how the Hebrew Bible begins the creation story.

And then after the family tree, Matthew tells us how ‘Yeshua’ will be born of/from a virgin; in other words, God will bring forth the Messiah ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo) from a virgin’s womb.

God doesn’t require procreation in order to create.

God’s Word will create something from nothing.

We affirm the virgin birth every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed, yet often I wonder if its really more like lip service with which we treat the ancient doctrine.

For many Christians, I suspect, the virgin birth is more like a museum piece of Christian belief- an artifact that belonged to those who came before us.

The doctrine today strikes many as curious and weighted with superstition, others as a ‘miracle story’ with little immediate relevance to the incarnation and still others as an embarrassing fragment of the faith that should be hidden away to make the faith more palatable to enlightened, modern minds.

For those who have no trouble affirming the virgin birth, the doctrine instead becomes a sort of litmus test upon which all of Christian belief rests. Ever since Charles Darwin made the Church’s life more complicated, the virgin birth has been one of the ‘fundamentals’ for evangelicals. Thus all the emphasis is put on believing the virgin birth rather than on what Matthew intends by it.

Few ever give attention to what Matthew may have intended by linking the word ‘genesis’ to a list of less than perfect people and then following it with news of a birth out of nothing. A virgin birth.

The bible is the story of salvation but it starts with the story of creation which we call Genesis. The gospel is the story of salvation but it begins with a story of creation which Matthew calls “genesis.”

 

And just as the beginning of the Bibles speaks of a genesis from nothing, the Book of Matthew speaks about a genesis from nothing, from a virgin birth.

 

And all of it is brought about by the Holy Spirit.

 

You see, all of this is Matthew’s way of telling us that Christmas, the incarnation, is the beginning of God re-making creation. Jesus is the genesis of God’s New Creation such that if you or I are in Christ, then, Paul says, we are a new creation.

 

And that’s why Matthew can put these embarrassing, shameful characters in Jesus’ family tree and make a part of the Christmas story. That’s why we don’t have to be perfect or pretend that we are to be a part of this Christmas story.

Because no matter who we are, what we’ve done, from where we come if we’re in Christ we’re a new creation.

Sermon #2: 

‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ 

– Luke 1 

We’ve had a mission team in Guatemala this past week. They’ve been working to complete the village-wide sanitation project you all helped fund during Lent.

This is the first Advent I’ve not led the team, and I regret it.

I do so because working and living and worshipping in the Highlands in Guatemala during Advent was how Mary first came alive to me as a character in scripture.

I mean you read or hear about how Mary was very likely poor, coming from a no-account town like Nazareth. You can read or hear about how Mary was very likely only 13 years old, but the Mary of scripture really comes alive when you’re sitting in a little church in Guatemala next to an impoverished 13 year old girl named Maria, who has little education, fewer hopes and a baby strapped on her back.

It was that Mary who, several years ago, whispered to me in Spanish how many Christians in Guatemala didn’t know the Magnificat. Because, she said, Guatemala’s dictators had banned any public reading of Mary’s song in Guatemala.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, was deemed too politically subversive.

It’s remarkable how easily we disguise the Christmas story with sentimentality.

We even hear much talk about how Jesus ‘is the reason for the season,’ yet the reason for his coming is never precisely explained.

We talk about the ‘War on Christmas’ but we’re not talking about King Herod and his death squads we’re talking about how we’re greeted at Tyson’s Corner.

When we allow ourselves to be vague and even sentimental about Jesus’ coming, we inadvertently allow Christmas to get abstracted away from Jesus’ life, teaching and death.

What does Christmas then have to do with the rest of the Gospel?

Or is it, as it seems to many, just an origins story designed to satisfy our curiosity or prove the fulfillment of prophecy?

Or does Jesus come down from heaven, as many Christians seem to suggest, just so we can invite him into our hearts and go up to heaven?

What does Christmas have to do with the rest of the story?

It’s odd that we should be so uncertain about the reasons for Jesus’ coming when his mother Mary is quite explicit about what Gabriel’s news means.

She even puts in a song so it’ll be easier for us to remember.

What does Mary sing about?

She sings about the Lord’s mercy to those who fear Him.

She sing about God’s generosity to the poor and hungry and God’s hostility to the proud and rich.

She sings about a King- she is, after all, engaged to a man from King David’s family.

Mary doesn’t sing about the forgiveness of sins or going to heaven when we die. Mary doesn’t sing about how her boy will one day give us timeless principles to live by.

Mary sings about God making good on his promise to Abraham, his promise to Abraham that through Abraham God would set the world right, bring forth a New Creation.

Mary sings about a Messiah who will topple the kings of the world and then rule AS King of Creation.

As confused as we can sound about the purpose behind Jesus’ coming, Mary knows in an instant how to interpret Gabriel’s news. The one she will bear will be the one to bring God’s promise to Abraham to fulfillment.

Even though we often reduce Jesus to being an object of our personal piety, Mary, who perhaps has more cause than anyone to reduce Jesus to personal terms, understands that her boy’s birth will have much larger, political implications.

A few lessons we can draw from Mary’s song:

That Mary magnificates- literally ‘bursts forth’- with these particular words should tell us something about Mary’s faith and the hope to which she clinged.

No passive, pastel or one-dimensional character, Mary is someone who obviously longed for God to set things right in a broken world. Her faith was active and strong so that, when the moment presented itself, she already had the words within her to respond.

That Mary sings this song while Herod and Caesar are still very much on the throne tells us something of her courage. In the face of the world’s power, she boldly casts her lot with the newness God was about to wreak.

We’re so accustomed to seeing Mary painted with stoic, beatific hues we forget how really she was a woman ready to shake her fist at the powers of the world and call upon God’s power.

That Mary sings this Kingdom song not in the future tense (God will cast down the mighty…) but in the past tense (God has cast down…) should tell us something even deeper about Mary’s faith.

Despite the unlikelihood of a Messiah being born to a poor, unknown, teenage girl, despite the long odds that the kings of this world would ever give up their thrones- in spite of everything common sense might suggest, Mary is confident in God’s promises enough to sing as though God already accomplished them.

Mary knows that any promise of God is as good as done.

That Jesus’ very first sermon in the synagogue sounds an awful lot like Mary’s song is suggestive.

Mary’s boy grows up to express the reason for his coming in exactly the same terms Mary sings about here. Not only is she a woman of obvious faith, which we seldom acknowledge, she also has a hand in forming the faith of Jesus, which we never acknowledge.

So rather than being vague and sentimental about the reason for the season, maybe we should just consult Jesus for his reasons. Or his mother.

Sermon #3:

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.’ 

– Luke 1 

We’ve had a mission team in Guatemala this past week. They’ve been working to complete the village-wide sanitation project you all helped fund during Lent.

This is the first Advent I’ve not led the team, and I regret it.

I do so because working and living and worshipping in the Highlands in Guatemala during Advent was how Mary first came alive to me as a character in scripture.

I mean you read or hear about how Mary was very likely poor, coming from a no-account town like Nazareth. You can read or hear about how Mary was very likely only 13 years old, but the Mary of scripture really comes alive when you’re sitting in a little church in Guatemala next to an impoverished 13 year old girl named Maria, who has little education, fewer hopes and a baby strapped on her back.

Protestants have tended either to ignore Mary outright or to treat her exclusively as a Christmas character.

While she gives birth to the object of our faith, Christians don’t often consider Mary herself as a woman of faith.

Both Luke and Matthew agree in their nativity accounts that Mary became pregnant prior to her marriage with Joseph, a fact embarrassing enough for us to conclude that it must be true.

Not to mention, no one in Israel expected the Messiah to be born of a virgin so it’s odd that both Luke and Matthew would independently tell us that in their different ways.

Both Gospels agree as well that Joseph knew he was not the father of Mary’s child.

The darker side to the annunciation is that when Mary receives news she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, she is almost certainly hearing news which no one else will believe.

Nazareth was a small town. You can be sure wagging tongues and whispering gossip will almost certainly follow Mary from here on out, speculating as to the ‘true’ cause of Mary’s premature pregnancy.

According to custom, Mary would have been no older than sixteen when she became engaged. According to tradition, Joseph most likely was an older man, marrying for the second time.

According to Torah, because Mary and Joseph were betrothed, any sexual activity prior to her wedding day would have been understood as adultery not fornication (Deut 22.23).

What if a woman in Mary’s position claimed she had been raped? What if her husband had brought false charges against her? What if she flatly denied any wrongdoing?

For such murky, disputed circumstances, as I showed you last week, Numbers 5 prescribes the ‘law of bitter waters’ wherein a suspected adulteress would be brought before a priest, required to let down her hair, and under oath drink a mixture of ash, holy water and the ink from the priest’s written indictment.

What I didn’t share with you last week.

The woman’s oath in the bitter waters ritual goes like this: ‘May the Lord make me to become a curse among my people when he causes my womb to miscarry and swell.’

Whatever we may think today of such customs, this was the reality which governed Mary’s world. It was the reality in which she nonetheless, hearing Gabriel’s news, replies: ‘May it be…’

Mary would’ve known the likelihood she’d be accused of adultery. Just as surely she would have known the proscribed punishment she might receive.

Mary would’ve known how Torah insisted Joseph divorce her, and she certainly would’ve known that whatever child she gave birth to before marriage, regardless of the angel’s promises, forever would be regarded as an illegitimate child and banned from the cultural and religious life of Israel.

Still, in the face of all those likelihoods, Mary summons the courage to say ‘May it be with me according to your word.’

Over 1500 years ago, St Augustine preached a Christmas sermon in which described all the angels of heaven holding their breath and peeking down through the clouds, waiting to see if Mary would say ‘yes.’

The obvious conclusion we can draw from this scene is that Mary had a faith sufficient to say yes to the vocation God had for her.

We can assume Mary had faith that the God of Israel is merciful and would protect her.

We can assume Mary knew from her scripture stories of women- suspect women- who nonetheless played a part in God’s plan and were safeguarded and ultimately rewarded by God. Mary must have known, we can imagine, that God’s call is very often a summons to serve and to suffer for love’s sake.

When Mary assents to the annunciation, she does so knowing her life will never be the same. Her Nazareth, she had to have known, would never look at her the same way again.

It’s in Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God here in Luke 1 that we can spot for the first time the shadow of her Son’s cross.

If we allow Christmas to be merely about sentimentality, we miss how Mary suffers for the Messiah before the Messiah himself suffers.

Indeed one could speculate that Jesus learns suffering love and the demands of faithfulness on his mother’s knee.

Sermon #4: 

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host…saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”            

– Luke 2 

Megyn Kelly at Fox News caused quite a storm a few days ago by asserting on-air that both Santa and Jesus are white.

Never mind that Saint Nicholas was originally a 4th century Bishop of Turkey and so most definitely not white but you don’t necessarily need to know skin color or ethnicity to understand the story of Santa Claus. It’s incidental.

However, you do need to know Jesus’ ethnicity to understand his story. It’s the essential ingredient to the story.

To understand the Christmas story, you need to know that Jesus wasn’t white. He was a 1st century Jew from Nazareth.

And, perhaps just as importantly, so was his mother.

We can’t get too upset over Megyn Kelly’s misrepresentation of Jesus though.

We’re just as guilty as her.

In Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is most often depicted as beautific.

In our Christmas crèches, she’s gentle and passive. She’s sweet and fresh-faced on Hallmark cards, and in Christian art for two thousand years she has been somber, sober, soft and white-faced.

Making Mary and Jesus just like us is a way of making them a-political; that is, it’s a way of removing the politics from their story.

But what Luke knows is that Jesus is born with monsters at his manger and that Mary delivers him into the world at a cost to herself that we have difficulty imagining.

When the Holy Spirit overshadows her, the Spirit also, for all practical purposes, hangs a bulls-eye on Mary’s back.

By the time her belly begins to show, Caesar Augustus had already been emperor for longer than she’d been alive. Caesar ruled the known world, and he was revered for bringing “peace” to it- peace, by any means necessary.

While God was beginning to work a different plan in the shadows of Mary’s life, Caesar ruled a kingdom of absolute power, a kingdom that brought “glory” to the man on top and “peace to those on whom his favor rested.”

By her second trimester, 1500 miles away in Rome, Caesar will lift his little finger and a young Jewish couple will find themselves submitting to a census, to be taxed, to pay for Caesar’s brand of peace.

And by the end of her third trimester, in Israel, Caesar’s puppet, Herod, will hear news of a promise rising with a star and this young Jewish couple will find themselves hunted. Like so many other Jews before and after them.

Before Jesus grows and preaches one himself, Rome already had a gospel of its own. About their emperor, Roman citizens- ordinary men and women- would proclaim with thankful hearts: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to the whole world.’

To a first century world grown numb to the 24/7 headlines of war, the advent of Caesar was considered “good news.”

It can’t be accidental that when the angel Gabriel surprises Mary with an unexpected future, he tells her that the child she’s to bear will be called ‘son of God.’ 

     It can’t be accidental that when the angels break open the sky directly above the shepherds, they make a threateningly familiar proclamation: “…GOOD NEWS of great joya SAVIOR has been born.” 

     And then the angels all sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’  

No doubt the shepherds then tell the news to Mary.

When the wise men show up at the scene, Mary just as surely would’ve known that Herod’s interest in stars and babies was far from innocent.

For Mary, it could all add up to only one thing. If her son was Savior, then Caesar- even if he could compel a census- was not. If her boy was King, then Herod- even if he could hunt them- was not.

The annunciation makes Mary not just a mother. It makes her a Middle Eastern political refugee because Mary was delivering not only a baby but a new Gospel story.

And this new Gospel made Mary’s life dangerous. Gabriel didn’t have to spell it out, Mary knew that by saying ‘Let it be with me according to your Word’ Mary was agreeing to have God place her in the dangerous middle of two competing Kingdoms.

You see, Mary didn’t just have a baby entrusted to her. She had a different, dangerous story to steward safely.

It’s not just the fact of this new baby that sends Mary running into Egypt; it’s this new Gospel that makes her a target.

It’s this news that God was about to bring down the mighty and fill the poor with good things, that those who sit on thrones and in the halls of power don’t have the last word, that the limits and circumstances of our lives are never final.

Christians around the world and throughout history have venerated Mary for being sinless, chaste, and pure- for being the ideal woman and for having such faith that she was ready to say ‘Yes’ when God called her.

Yet Mary gets no credit for being someone who safeguards and shares the Gospel story at risk to herself. We owe Mary more than we think- we owe her the story we gather around this time every year.

I mean, we never stop to think: who was the first person to tell the Gospel story?

After Jesus is born, Gabriel is not heard from again. The shepherds go back to their flocks. The wise men return home. The Story stays with Mary.

Rome called Caesar SAVIOR and SON OF GOD. His rule was GOOD NEWS because he brought PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM HIS FAVOR RESTED.

Not so subtly, the angels use those very same expressions to announce the birth of Christ. And not so safely it’s Mary who begins to tell the Story, no matter what it might cost her.

The Story of the Son’s birth and what it means and what it contradicts comes to us by word of the Mother.

When Mary runs for her boy’s life to Egypt, you can bet she holds this Story as closely to her as she holds her baby.

Behind our proclivities to picture her in gentle pinks and blues, Mary should be painted with the boldness that can face down empires.

Sermon #5: 

‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ 

– Acts 1, 2

I was surprised the first time I realized that Mary, after only Peter and Paul, receives the most mention in the New Testament- 217 mentions in the New Testament.

I was shocked the first time I read the beginning of Acts and noticed Mary’s name dropped in there among the list of those who comprised the first church.

A Christian legend holds that, following the crucifixion, the Beloved Disciple took Mary with him to Ephesus where they lived quietly and while he cared for her. It’s a legend that, perhaps unwittingly, portrays Mary as rendered helpless by her grief.

The legend abides and you’re likely to hear it repeated upon a visit to Ephesus today.

Luke, in Acts, gives us a much different take on Mary. There Mary is quietly mentioned as a leader in the Acts church, devoting herself along with everyone else to Jesus’ teaching, to the fellowship of the community, to the Eucharist and to prayer.

How is it we never think of Mary as one of the believers gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost in Acts?

How is it we never think of Mary as one of the disciples who receive the gift of tongues at Pentecost?

Yet surely, since she’s mentioned here along with the others, she also participated with them in the Pentecost miracle.

If Pentecost is a story of God unwinding the effects of Babel and creating a new community, a new family of God, then Mary is there at this new family’s birth, as one of its leaders.

I like to think that in the birth of this new community Mary finally sees the promise of Messiah coming true, that in the life of this new community the Jubilee she’d sang about in her magnificat was finally being fulfilled.

After all, here was a community ruled by love rather than thrones, a community where the lowly are indeed lifted up and the hungry filled because ‘everyone held everything in common.’

Just as she’d sang about before his birth, all of this is made possible by her Son.

What Mary must realize in Acts, little more than month after her Son’s death, is what she must have started to guess at the Annunciation: that God was bringing together a new People, a people distinguished not by the usual lines of blood or family but a people called together by the particular life which claimed them, a people brought forth not through simple biology but through practicing the life of Jesus.

Jason Micheli

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